Pixabay: Muzammil Cholayil

Kicked Out: Our Plan “B” was His Plan “A”

This is the fourth and final article in our Kicked Out series. Be sure to check out the firstsecond, and third in the series if you missed them.

Serving as a missionary in the Middle East is a tough call and a tall order no matter where you serve. But then again, Peter Lawrence* and his family weren’t looking for easy. They were looking to obey their King, and build for His kingdom.  

“In 2010, we were looking at different mission priorities,” Peter said. “Unreached people groups in the Arabic-speaking world, and Syria [in particular], were at the top of the list.”  

Their strategy, as originally conceived, was to join a team in a neighboring Muslim-majority country, study Arabic for between six months to a year, and then enter Syria—primed for ministry and with the language already under their belts.  

“In the past, missionaries had not lasted more than four or five years in Syria before they lost their residency,” Peter explained. “So the idea was to learn your Arabic first so you could hit the ground running and be as effective as possible in however many years the Lord gives you there.”  

It was a bold plan, but by the time the Lawrences made it to the Middle East in 2013, the rumblings of the Arab Spring that had rocked much of the Islamic world were beginning to escalate in Syria. Protests soon became uprisings, and uprisings escalated to a full-blown civil war. It became clear to Peter that entering Syria with his family was no longer an option. 

“So, we stayed [where we were], and the Syrian people came to us instead,” said Peter. “Suddenly, we had a refugee ministry on our hands.”  

In the months to come, nearly one and a half million Syrians poured over the border, fleeing conflict in their homeland and taking refuge in the Lawrences' city. Over the next year, Peter and his wife, Belle, developed a daily routine. Every morning they studied Arabic with tutors. Every afternoon and evening, they ventured out into Syrian homes—meeting new arrivals, hearing their stories, and delivering emergency aid to people who had lost everything except what they could carry with their own two hands.  

A year later, they moved to the country’s capital to focus on their language studies. 

“We found out about this [local] church that had a lot of vision to reach the least-reach peoples in [the country],” said Peter, “especially Syrians in the hinterlands, in villages and places that nobody else was going.”  

Intrigued, the Lawrences started attending the church. It was small, only about 30 members, but they dove right in. A year later, Peter began working with the church full-time, coming alongside the pastor and encouraging his vision to plant house churches among the Syrian people in the villages. 

“Our goal all along has been to make disciples that form healthy local churches, led by Syrians, that are reproducible pretty quickly among themselves,” he explained. “We don’t build buildings. We don’t pay pastors. Rather, we’re finding persons of peace, as Jesus spoke about—people who are open and open their network to you. And then that network becomes the basis of a church.”  

It was, in Peter’s words, “a revolutionary, exciting thing, but fraught with challenges.” Believers from Muslim backgrounds helped lead many of the church’s outreach ministries. The little church network founded village schools, providing an education for Syrian kids who couldn’t get into government schools. It all seemed to be going so well.  

And then, the persecution began.  

Things Fall Apart  
“The government started first with the pastor and his relatives, then the deacons, then many of the Muslim-background believers in the church,” said Peter. “All brought in for questioning—summoned to the [provincial] governor’s office. … They wanted to shut down the schools and were asking questions about what the church was doing there.” 

It was very real, very present persecution. And according to Peter, the local pastor’s response and attitude failed to honor government officials. This only made matters worse.  

By Christmas of that year, the governor ordered that the church building be shut down. The local Christians were forced to move to a house church, and things began to fall apart. Half the congregation, including all but one of the Muslim-background believers, dispersed. The remaining believers were divided, throwing out accusations and blame. The pastor left the country, and within two months the remaining church group collapsed.  

“They had no heart left in them to continue to be a church,” said Peter. “I took a job with a local NGO to do relief work among Syrians.”  

Just then, the Lawrences’ residency visas were due for renewal. Peter went through the renewal application process, but the visa approvals were delayed for weeks. Finally, the day before they were scheduled to fly back to their home country for a time of rest, recovery, and checking in with supporters, he went to the government office to check on his visa status one last time.  

“It was refused,” said Peter. “That was a shock.”  

Peter and Belle didn’t fly back after all. Too many people they knew were being denied re-entry into the country, so leaving was dangerous. They decided to stay and fight the ruling.  

“We tried to get influential connections [in the country] to help,” Peter said. “That didn’t work. Eventually we applied for a different residency type. The NGO offered to sponsor me for my job. They stuck their necks out for us, and five months later we were approved.”  

This time, the paperwork had gone through easily. New visa in hand, Peter and Belle felt optimistic. By now, it had been three years since the Lawrences had been back in their home country. They’d had a baby that year, and their families had not yet had a chance to meet her. When one of their supporting churches offered to pay for a trip home, they jumped at the chance, making it home in time for Christmas, and spending three wonderful weeks with their families.  

The Lawrences boarded a flight back to the Middle East, ready to dive back into ministry. But when they arrived at the airport, customs denied them entry. 

“They never gave a reason,” said Peter. “They detained us for 19 hours as a family, all five of us, even the little baby, all in the immigration detention center inside the airport.”

The next morning, guards escorted them to a flight out of the country. Weeks later, they were granted a single week to return and settle their affairs in their former Middle Eastern home. They returned, packed everything they could fit in their bags, sold the rest of their possessions, shut down their house, and flew out. Their ministry was gone. They were shut out from the country they had come to call home. And the suitcases in their hands were all that they owned. 

The Church’s Response
“It’s hard to think of not being able to go back to the place where two of my children were born, where we basically had all of our lives,” said Peter. “We were invested locally. Our social needs were met locally. We were very much embedded there. To lose all of your face-to-face relationships at once, it’s like a death.”

In the aftermath, the Lawrences mourned. And much of their community mourned with them, coming around to help and heal wherever they could lend a hand. When they returned home for that short week, friends and neighbors hosted an open house to sell their things, helped sell their car, clean their house, and even packed their bags. It was a marvelous testament to the love God’s people can show for one another. 

“We just tossed whatever we wanted to keep into the living room, and [they took care of it],” Peter said. “I never packed a single suitcase. That’s the kind of help we had.”

Then it came time to process the loss with their supporting churches.

“It would be good for people to know that this is like a death,” Peter said. “When people in our churches recognize that … it’s amazing. Mourn with us a little, give time for healing, and then you ask the question of: ‘What’s next? What are you going to do now?’”

A number of the Lawrences’ sending churches did just that.  

“[This one church, they] really get us,” said Peter. “They strategize with us, and I was Skyping the senior pastor twice a week after all this happened. … This guy, he visits us on the field every year. He gets us. He helps us make decisions. I wouldn’t go to [our new field] until he signed off on it too.”

Another sending church, though less involved with the nitty gritty of field decisions, love Peter and Belle actively and well. When the Lawrences returned home for the summer, homeless and heartbroken, this church gave them a car to drive and a place to stay, filling the refrigerator with groceries. When Peter needed to pack and move some of his old things into a storage facility, they sent a team to help.

“They love us to death,” said Peter. “My prayer would be that for any missionary, especially those going to hard places: before you go to the mission field, build up the fabric of relationships with your home church. You need that so much. That’s what helped us through this crisis.”

A New Beginning
For years, Peter and Belle had told each other that, if for some reason they couldn’t go on ministering to Syrians where they were, they would just go to another Middle Eastern country and make disciples of Syrians there. Now, they would do just that.

The Lawrences moved to another country in the region. It’s a new location, but they have the same vision and long-term goal, and they still minister to the Syrian people. In their new country of service, Peter and Belle will be working with a church that has already seen hundreds of Syrians come to faith—something unheard of in their last country of service. In some ways, the Lawrences will be even better positioned to minister to Syrians in their new situation than they were before.

“We’re still mourning, but now we have closure,” said Peter. “This journey has been confusing, but the Lord is doing something new, and we get to find out what it is. That’s kind of cool, in a way. For us, this is plan “B,” but it’s actually His plan “A.”

“I used to end my prayers, pretty faithfully, with ‘Your will be done, Lord,’” he added. “Now I start with that. … I think I’ve come to love God’s sovereignty more in this season. It’s not just a comfort, it’s an excitement too. I just believe it more practically, functionally.

“I hope it lasts, this feeling.”

*Names have been changed.

Andrew Shaughnessy Dec 17, 2019
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